Entertainment » Movies

Syncopation

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Feb 10, 2015
Syncopation

"Syncopation," the 1942 William Dieterle-directed feature starring Jackie Cooper and Bonita Granville, has never had a home release until now -- and Cohen Media Group has once again taken pains to ensure a clean, luminous transfer that's visually excellent, even if the limitations of the source audio means that there's no getting around a muffled, flattened sound quality. The latter is too bad, in a sense, this being a movie about music; but the sound quality also underscores the film's vintage qualities, good and bad alike.

As a cultural document, "Syncopation" feels important. Its startling opening scenes show the feet of African tribesmen dancing to an indigenous rhythm; a little way off, a cheiftan seals a deal with a group of European men, accepting a small chest of treasure. The camera swivels to a second, larger chest that's thrown open -- with a blare of incidental music and a quick trucking in of the camera -- to reveal chains and manacles. A dissolve to a slave ship quickly comes and goes, and then we're in New Orleans in 1906. The audiovisual shorthand is concise and elegant: Jazz music may have its roots in Africa, but it's developed into a distinctly American expression, as native to our country as anything with deep roots in European culture, and therefore as valid and enriching to our cultural life.

If this seems a trifle defensive, keep watching: After a few scenes of introduction and exposition, we jump ahead to 1916. A young woman named Kit (Granville) has moved to Chicago from New Orleans at a young age, but never relinquished her love for the emerging new sound of jazz. Her father (Adolphe Menjou) has a close friend named Steve (George Bancroft); the two families are of similar social status, and the Steve's son Paul (Ted North) is the presumed marital match for Kit.

But the musically gifted, forward-thinking Kit meets Johnny (Cooper), a young horn player from the wrong side of town, and when he escorts her to a speakeasy and she takes to the piano to show them how it's done back home, her playing incites a riot -- a joyous riot, to be sure, but one so full of alarmingly spirited music and "brazenly vulgar" dancing that Kit ends up on trial. The sharp finger of stodgy, outdated morality can't keep Kit down, though; she plays a number to the jury and convinces everyone in the room that jazz, far from being morally corrupting, is just about the coolest thing ever, Daddy-O.

All this transpires in the first half hour. After that, the rote romantic beats play out (the outbreak of World War I handily solves the problem of whom to choose; marriage and music mix as well as oil and water; but love and shared passion for jazz win the day), and after serving up some top-notch music the film rests its case, having lobbied hard on behalf of the musical form many at the time found pernicious.

The film is tonally erratic, and its deeper cultural messages are equally confusing. A black player who, in any modern version of the film, would have a major role throughout is introduced, re-introduced a couple of times, and then summarily dispensed with; in the end, with devoted white musicians and appreciative white audiences on its side, jazz seems ready to go mainstream. But that's the problem: By this point, the black musicians have all vanished from the scene. Only when jazz turns into a white thing do moral qualms seem to subside.

Deeper still are the film's innately sexist views. Kit seems to prefer the socially mismatched Johnny -- they are soulmates, mutually attracted thanks to their shared love of the music -- but the film chooses not to let her wrestle with the problem of which suitor to select. Indeed, the choice has been made for her, right up to Paul's too-facile elimination, which feels like a side-stepping of the way the film allows the "good girl / bad boy" trope to play out. There's no moral dimension to the outcome; Kit is liberated from marital expectations by the writer's pen, rather than her own agency, which implicitly reduces her to being the property of her father.

And yet, given the time in which it was made, this remains a brave film and comes across as a work of passion in defense of art. It very conflicts speak to cultural issues from the age that produced the work -- but they also speak to similar conflicts that remain very much alive today.

Serving as a refreshing, and much more challenging, counterbalance are a slate of nine short films, most of the Paramount Pictures productions. Unlike the feature, many of these shorts remain focused on black performers. Billie Holiday sings "Stormy Weather" in a slick production that puts the MTV format to shame; Duke Ellington appears in a couple of these films, as does Cab Calloway (playing himself as a lech who chases a married woman in a comedy whose punchline derives from a commercial slogan).

That's not to say there aren't white artists represented here, too: Artie Shaw and his band are the focus of a brief documentary, and Hoagy Carmichael stars in the sort of standup/musical show Bing Crosby did on radio in the '40s.

All of these shorts look to have been remastered and carefully transferred. Some of them remain bleary, but that only adds to their dreamlike quality. Underneath, there are palpable hard edges of the realities of the day - realities that have changed considerably since then, even if we're still not at the point, already proclaimed by some, of being a "post-racial" society. This is musical fare and social commentary you can hear in good faith, even as some ugly ingrained attitudes strike the contemporary eye with a bluntness earlier audiences may not even have noticed. Jazz fans, cinephiles, political junkies, culture vultures, and just about everyone else will find plenty on this release that captivates and informs.


"Syncopation"
Blu-ray
$39.98
http://cohenmedia.net/films/syncopation

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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